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Voicing and Toning

Voicing and Toning

The voicing of a piano is very different from tuning. The term voicing covers the quality of the sound produced when the hammer strikes a string, whereas tuning merely refers to the pitch. The only means of influencing the tuning is by a movement of the tuning pin whereas voicing is influenced by many other factors.

Many factors influence the voicing, some of which are listed below:

  • Hardness or softness of the hammer
  • Deep indentations on hammers from impact with strings
  • Lack of simultaneous contact of hammer to strings (Unisons)
  • Set-off adjustment of hammer prior to impact
  • Quality of string which has become impaired through age,rust,or pitch-raising in the past
  • Loose windings on copper-wound bass strings
  • Looseness of bridge onto sound board
  • Looseness of bridge pins
  • Vibrations caused by cracks in the soundboard
  • Lack of down-bearing on bridge due to relaxation of soundboard
  • Hardness or malfunction of dampers
  • Neon light fittings have very audible frequencies which can often conflict with the frequencies of the piano giving the impression of being “out of tune”
  • Neon lights are often housed in fittings resembling egg containers. The dividers in these fittings are generally loose and vibrate sympathetically with certain notes on the piano.
  • Overhead fans cause major problems. The sound from the piano hits the blades of the fan which propels the sound back at a different frequency causing an impression of the piano being “out of tune”
  • Air conditioners, vacuum cleaners, fridges, washing machines, pool pumps, lawn mowers, fish tank pumps are all likely to cause frequencies which are in conflict with the piano.
  • Loose objects on top of the piano such as containers with pins and paper clips etc.

Extraneous Factors influencing Tuning and Tone

The quality and condition of the hammer is probably the most dramatic influence on the sound or tone of a piano although the dampers run a close second. The felt on a hammer is stretched over and glued on to the wood under immense pressure . This results in a high degree of resilience which must be modified to produce the desired tone. When a brand new piano enters it’s last stage before leaving the factory, it is wheeled into a room where a highly trained technician needles the felt in such a manner as to produce a strident sound when the hammer is struck with force and a warmer sound when the note is played gently.

Until the 2nd world war, most famous makes of piano had a very distinctive tonal character that could not easily be confused with their competitors. Each piano maker had a definite following of famous and less pianists. At one end of the tonal spectrum was the Bluthner’s round and mellow sound from Leipzig and at the other end of the spectrum Steinway’s powerful singing brilliance from New York and Hamburg. Although both piano makers catered for the domestic and concert markets, it would probably be accurate to say that Bluthners favoured the domestic market and Steinways were more sought after by concert halls. So each piano maker had a tonal characteristic peculiar to it’s own. The clear tone of the Bosendorfer, reminiscent of the lighter Vienese- actioned pianos and the exquisite sound of the Pleyel from France, influencing the impressionist repertoire so dramatically,are just two examples of distinctive tone.

AFter the 2nd world war most of the piano factories in Europe were destroyed. During the war, they produces wooden goods for the war effort…(The veneering and laminating skills of the piano industry were put to good use in the aircraft industry) A great many skilled men never returned and many famous piano makers lived on past reputations and never recovered their former standards and tonal characteristics. One maker that survived the war better than most was Steinway, having not only a factory in Hamburg but all importantly the original factory in New York, little affected by the war. This gave them a unique economic opportunity, enabling them to furnish many of the re-built concert halls in Europe with Steinway pianos whilst their competitors were struggling to rebuild their factories. The fine qualities of the Steinway combined with the post-war economic opportunity helped make the Steinway arguably the most popular concert piano in the second half of the 20th century.

The Steinway Sound

Over the past 50 years, as the competition dwindled, Steinway pianos have become so familiar to the concert pianist that it has now become unusual to see other makes on the concert platform. (since this article was written Yamaha and Kawai have made significant in-roads to this market). As Steinway became the standard so other piano makers have attempted to emulate the Steinway sound. The theory being that if their pianos sounded like Steinway ,they would sell more pianos. This has been a sad move as more and more makers strive to copy the Steinway sound,they have lost their own individual tonal characters.

Inherent Piano Tone

There is an inherent aspect of any piano’s tone that cannot be altered. This is laid down in the design and scaling of the instrument,the quality of materials used and the method of construction. The true nature of the tone of any piano is built into it. Just as no two trees are the same,then we cannot expect any two pianos to sound the same. They may sound similar from one piano maker but never the same. This is why it is important when purchasing a piano to personally select the piano that suite one’s personal taste